Crisis Communications in Social Media: Are You Ready?


Remember the Monster's Inc. move at Domino's? In the post, I quoted a character from the movie. CDA Agent says:
can neither confirm nor deny the presence of a human child here
tonight." Do we stipulate that there are canned customers who like to
receive canned messages? In this age of personalization and "Me, Inc."?

If you're experienced in crisis communications, you know that rarely does a crisis explode overnight. Even in the current murky sea of dissatisfaction with the oil situation and BP, we got where we are with stakeholders because of lack of communication.

There are usually two things happening during a crisis:

1.) the issue at hand that needs to be dealt with

It could be a fire in one of your buildings, a disgruntled former employee who shares internal documents, embezzlement or corruption, kidnap and ransom, a hurricane takes the roof off your warehouse, your plant goes down because of flooding or a power grid failure and production is halted, etc. You get the idea.

Or, it could be a known issue — one the management team or the general manager (the one with the P&L) know about and may not have briefed the communication team. I'm inclined to think this is the case with many recent break downs between companies and their communities.

2.) communication with all stakeholders and the public at large where applicable

This includes employees and their families, local authorities and emergency personnel, business partners, vendors, board of directors, analysts, and the investor community as applicable, as well as the physical and virtual communities affected — directly and indirectly.

Managing a crisis needs to be intertwined with communicating about what is known and being done during the crisis. There are plenty of crisis experts on both sides of the conversation. I worked for years in the chemical manufacturing and IT infrastructure services industries alongside some very senior and experienced crisis management teams.

You could say that no industry is immune from a crisis — think for example of the financial services, both banking and insurance organizations have been in the limelight for their business practices in recent years.

ICE it

Communicators and PR professionals are taught that during a crisis, they should use the ICE method to guide the response. ICE stands for Information, Communication and Evaluation. These three areas and the processes associated with them will help you stay organized and keep the crisis response team and the crisis management task force on the same page.

I — Information

Gather as much information as possible about the event: who, what, when, where, why, how and more. Check and double check the facts, and get updates often. Do you have open communication lines with the people in the field and those close to the crisis? Do you have a process to capture information as it becomes available?

C — Communication

Once information has been gathered and verified, communicate to employees and other key stakeholders, including the media, as appropriate. Keep a log of all requests for information from each stakeholder group. Do you have pre-approved language you can insert key facts into to aid with speed in initial communications? What's your process for ongoing updates? Who needs to be involved in approvals?

E — Evaluation
Monitor media stories and online conversations to make certain information is being presented accurately. The crisis response team must act immediately to correct any incorrect or misleading information. Update information frequently and verify progress in the organization’s response.

You will need to monitor public statements by third parties, including customers, emergency responders, fire and police personnel, and others. The same process applies here — if information is incorrect or misleading, notify the media and the source immediately with the most current facts.

Follow up proactively with the media and other stakeholders in the days and weeks that follow the crisis. You have an opportunity to add any subsequent findings or new information, and provide an update on your progress and next steps.

When the crisis is over, you will want to evaluate the performance of the crisis response team in executing the crisis plan to identify areas of strength and opportunities for improvement.

Planning for disaster

The truth is many organizations are not ready when a disaster or a crisis strike. They have failed to plan how they'll gather information, they have not identified stakeholders for their communications, and overlook the important steps in evaluating how the crisis is developing to shape what's next.

Richard Becker highlighted the four basic tenets of disaster planning:

1. Mitigation. Mitigation focuses on long-term measures to reduce
or eliminate risk. These might include technologies or policies, set in
place by companies or government.

2. Preparedness.
Planning, organizing, training, evaluating, and improving activities
that will ensure the proper coordination of efforts during a disaster.

Response includes the mobilization of all necessary
emergency services and first responders in the disaster area. Organized
response requires a structure (leadership) and agility (creativeness).

Recovery aims to restore the affected area to its
previous state before the disaster. This almost always occurs after a
disaster; it is the opportunity to assess where mitigation,
preparedness, and response broke down.

Which ones are you not prepared for? A crisis becomes a disaster when the issue that precipitated it is not attended to, and when the communication about it is not forthcoming, factual, and directed to all stakeholders. 

The tangled webs weave


In the age of conversation, a story, and the ensuing public
recruitment, rallying, and support, can rapidly spread unlike any crisis
wildfire witnessed or experienced in previous generations. Add to it the fact that many, including mainstream media outlets, consume news and information on social networks and you have plenty to think about.

Are you prepared to deal with it?

Organizations are hitching to take advantage of new media for marketing purposes, and so they should. If your customers and prospect are online, you'd want to use the same tools to communicate with them and their colleagues and friends. Are you:

  • creating social media guidelines and training modules to help mitigate the risk of your associates, employees participating in online communities
  • developing likely business scenarios that could impact your business and running through them in table top exercises and drills
  • training all the people who will be part of the response team, engaging actively with emergency personnel and leading community members, the communication team especially
  • evaluating where things are breaking down in communication and issue management and gaining the proper agility and momentum to deal with all loose ends

Social networks made everything faster and the dependencies more complex. However, you should not overthink the process because of this. The same principles apply here that are time tested. I've been involved in crisis situations that we could not have even imagined as a business, never mind plan for it.

Working on mitigating and planning give you the mental and physical rigor to cover all bases. The structure helps you deal with the chaos when it presents itself.

Survival is not enough

Preparation and information are your friends. In social that means laying the ground work on building relationships with your community based on authentic openness about business practices, products and services.

When an unforeseen mistake or a disaster happens, the ground work will give you license to impress your customers. 

Communicators and public relations professionals are usually involved with new media for this reason. However, businesses are still working on crisis communications plans and many have not taken the extra step to incorporate social media in those plans.

Think that misinformation and consequent chatter could happen only in social networks? How about a fake press release like the one General Mills is dealing with?

Are you ready or will you be caught unprepared?

[image by SwiftRiver, a free and open source software platform
that uses algorithms and crowdsourcing to validate and filter news
. See the article on UX magazine.]


Further resources:

Are you Hiring the Right Public Relations Candidates?

Your News Page is the New Newsroom

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0 responses to “Crisis Communications in Social Media: Are You Ready?”

  1. I don’t think you get it. Social media isn’t about control and mitigating risk. People will talk about you online no matter what your posting to your Facebook Fan page. You can’t control social media and the more you try, the more you fail.
    If you want folks to talk positively and honestly about what you do, do something positive and honest. People don’t trust institutions anymore, especially government. If you want your employees to represent your company honestly, treat your employees well and empower them to use these tools without standing over their shoulders.
    Social media doesn’t work top down. Your employees won’t be inspired to use the tools if there are official policies that guide what they say. It’s about genuine one-to-one public interaction.
    Public relations managers have only one role: to enable employees to speak for the company so they don’t have to.
    Control is an illusion.

  2. @Alexis – thanks for stopping by.
    @Paul – first off, would you say that a business should not align with what is good for its community? That’s what mitigating risk means. Do you have a different understanding? It sounds like you might so by all means, enlighten me. If you want people to have a good opinion of you, your behavior needs to be good. Yup, you need to align what your business is about with what the community wants and needs. Which incidentally means that to mitigate a disaster you need to think through how you conduct your business on the get go. I agree that you need to treat people well; common sense is not all that common? The role of public relations managers is an important one. I would not want someone with no qualifications and training to build a bridge, to just enable the folks who want to build one to do it, would you? The risk of people participating without understanding the issues is to those people as much if not more than to the company. I don’t want to control people, I want to help them be more effective. Big difference. You seem to want to take it out on me personally because I believe that education and information/knowledge should be shared. I’ve got news for you, social media didn’t invent decency and respect of the other. They existed before. However, it seems to me that we could use a bit more critical thinking and parsing before writing critically.

  3. Paul, I don’t think you get it. Or, at the very least, you’re unfamiliar with the broader scope of Valeria’s work, which is all about the employee empowerment and authentic one-on-one interaction you champion.
    But if you think there’s no value in institutional response, you’re living in a dream world. We need look no further than BP’s self-immolation to see this. Institutional responses are quoted, set tone for the rank-and-file, and are useful to both institution and the public at large — if conceived as more than propaganda.
    You’re entirely correct that message control is an unlamented anachronism in the age of social media. Modern communication is a wildfire. Frankly, I’m comfortable with that.
    But Valeria’s piece embraces more than message. It’s about forming effective response — from advance risk assessment to problem-solving to communication (both internal and public).
    This is responsible management, a process which has not been fundamentally changed by social media. It is, however, based on authentic communication, something which must exist long before a crisis if an institution plans to weather the fast-moving storms which cross our digital landscape.

  4. Funny that once something is determined to be a “crisis”, it could have been prevented much sooner and without much effort.
    I agree that a contingency plan (almost in the same idea as a DR/BCP for business operations) must be created and known by those responsible for handling it.
    The more transparent business becomes and is demanded so by customers, the more crisis management in social media will be a must have.
    Enjoyed the piece Valeria.

  5. Valeria, a valuable post. I’d like to add to the conversation with the four key questions your communications MUST answer in a crisis:
    1. What happened?
    2. Are we safe?
    3. Do you know what you’re doing?
    4. Can we trust you?
    Your ability to answer these Qs in your communications whether in mainstream or social media will tell you exactly how you’re doing. If you look at the BP crisis, not so well…. Regards,

  6. Great stuff, as usual, Valeria.
    Creating an organisational response framework for social media should be part of any business’ crisis planning. And this is a great way to explain it to others 😉

  7. @Chris – well written synthesis, thank you. We do need institutions to be prepared and responsible.
    @Omar – even force of nature can be somewhat anticipated — you do know when building in a flood area, or you should find out if you are, or work in a particularly active earthquake zone. Organizations should be concerned with what their customers’ customers would do as well. Part of the business ecosystem and what is likely to engage with social media.
    @Jeff – thank you for adding to the conversation, very useful. I’d say that the last two, “do you know what you’re doing” and “can we trust you” are more about demonstrating with actions than communicating with words.
    @Gavin – the framework may help organizations not freeze when it comes to social. There is still a gap in understanding that 48 hours is not fast online, lots happens in a few mere hours in social networks.

  8. Hi, all. A lot of strong insight here that translates from old school crisis management to dealing with a social media crisis. That said, two main trends stand out to me based on the post and comments:
    1) Try ICEing it before a crisis hits. Remove those principles from a crisis setting and they equal an online community participant that adds value and builds goodwill.
    2) Do a crisis fire drill. Walk your people through the scenarios they may face when 48 hours response is way to long online.
    Does anyone know companies or case studies of organizations doing crisis fire drills?
    Nice post, Valeria. Sending it along to some of my colleagues here at FH.

  9. Glad you’re sharing the post, Justin. We need to elevate the conversation to make it a best practice in the industry.
    The online participant may be there for marketing reasons. How do we train them to become better listeners? To know what to listen for?
    Having a business continuity plan in place is also very helpful when you’re involved in a disaster. There are many companies doing drills. I know several Government agencies do cyber attack exercises, for example, on a routine basis. Until very recently, when I worked on the company side, we did fire drills and rigorous crisis communications table top exercises (was in risk management, chemical manufacturing and IT infrastructure services).

  10. Hi.
    I have translated to Spanish your article. I hope that has not imported you…
    I am learning English translating…
    you can read it in:
    I think that is very interesting, but i am so much pessimistic about the future of the world, with o without bussiness… so my opinion about the rrpp is hard… no because of their intentions, it can be a good person and have to lie because the oil is in the tube but the employeers are being enslaved… I think that the actual society is finite, so i only can tell what happened, because of i am studying journalism, while i dont know for who yet…

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